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Ron Martz: Today’s colleges seek to avoid all challenges, risk
In a quest to protect students from threats real and imagined, coping skills are no longer valued
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The University of North Georgia shuttle waits for passengers Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018, at the university’s Gainesville campus. - photo by Scott Rogers

Several years ago, I opened a Path2College 529 plan for my granddaughter on her first birthday.

She was not particularly excited about the piece of paper I gave her denoting enrollment in the program, but I anticipate by the time she is ready for college there will be a bit more enthusiasm about the money set aside for her education.

While the 529 Plan is a wonderful tool to grow money and help avoid massive student loan debt down the road, I am starting to have second thoughts. Not about the plan, but about the whole idea of a college education.

My concerns stem from growing doubts about whether college is the best route to a well-rounded education that promotes critical thinking and actually prepares young people for the real world.

Over the last few years, our institutions of higher learning seem on the verge of becoming little more than day care centers for large numbers of wimpy, overprivileged children who are offended by the slightest disruption of their rosy view of what they believe the world should be and how they should be treated.

The latest such disruption occurred at the University of North Georgia, where I got my masters’ degree and where I taught for six years.

According to news reports, Professor William Black, interim head of the accounting department, made a rather intemperate remark — in an apparent effort to be humorous — to a student who was about to deploy with a military unit to the border with Mexico.

Black is said to have said that those crossing the border should be asked accounting questions. If they got them right, they could enter the U.S. If not, they should be shot.

It was not particularly funny in any sense. (He might have been better off if he had said that if they failed the first time, they should be told to go back and study harder and try again next week.)

When students protested what he had said, Black immediately threw himself on the altar of political correctness, offering himself up for diversity training and all manner of public lashings on social media. 

That should have been the end of it. It wasn’t.

Nataly Morales Villa, student adviser for UNG’s Multicultural Student Affairs Office, called Black’s comments “racist.”

They were anything but. Ms. Villa needs to look up the actual definition of racism rather than falling in line with what many so many uninformed people believe it is. Black’s comments were purely and simply inappropriate, insensitive, intemperate and, well, not funny.

Brittney Yancy, president of the school’s Black Student Union, called for Professor Black’s firing. Over a bad joke badly told?

That sort of hypersensitivity among so many of today’s children who are desperately trying to convince us they are on the cusp of becoming responsible adults is not all that unusual in higher education.

Topping my list of favorite laughable student outrages is the anti-Donald Trump hysteria that emerged at Emory University in Atlanta during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Someone had the temerity to write the words “Trump,” “Trump 2016,” “Vote Trump” and “Build the Wall” in chalk on sidewalks around the campus. After seeing the scrawled chalkings, one student told the campus newspaper: “We are in pain.”

Another was quoted as saying: “I don’t deserve to feel afraid at my school.”

And still another: “I legitimately feared for my life.”

Call the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; there’s an epidemic of calxophobia — fear of chalk — on the Emory campus in Atlanta.

Penn State University is getting a jump on ensuring that all students are smothered in a protective cocoon so that their college life is free of stress, fear or any chance they might actually have to confront real problems in the real world.

The most significant of these “safety and security for all students at all costs” measures involves Penn State’s “Outing Club.”

This club has nothing to do with sexual orientation, as I originally thought. Instead, it is a club that encourages students to go hiking, camping and backpacking. The idea is to get students to enjoy nature and realize there are things beyond the classroom worth exploring.

The university did a risk assessment and determined these activities are far too dangerous for students. So after 98 years, the Outing Club is out at Penn State.

What’s next? Students banned from driving cars on campus because cars get into accidents and people get hurt?

Canceled classes if it’s raining or snowing or too cold because someone might slip and fall or, Lord have mercy, get wet and catch cold?

That sort of overprotectiveness will prepare students for absolutely nothing beyond the university.

Colleges and universities are supposed to provide challenges and risks intellectually and, if the students are so inclined, physically. If you want lifelong protection free of stress and fears for your safety, lock yourself in your parents’ basement and shut out the world.

The national poster child for students — and administrators — gone stupid is Reed College, a small, private liberal arts school in Oregon.

Last month a student group that calls itself Reedies Against Racism browbeat the school into dropping its required freshman seminar, Humanities 110, because, as one student said, the course “perpetuates white supremacy by centering whiteness as the only required course at Reed.”

The Reedies Against Racism felt threatened and unsafe on a campus where a course studying the great philosophers that were the foundation of Western thinking and culture was a required part of the curriculum.

The group invaded classrooms where the seminar was being taught, talked over professors giving lectures and insisted the university scrap the course altogether, claiming those who taught it were white supremacists.

As so often happens in these cases, the Reedies opened their mouths without doing any research. One of the course’s featured lecturers was a mixed-race gay woman. Nevertheless, the self-righteous and sanctimonious children who believe they are blessed with supreme wisdom hounded her from the classroom.

The school has capitulated and dropped the course starting in the fall. It is being replaced with selected courses that appeal more to identity politics.

What the Reedies Against Racism fail to see, as do their supporters, is that by getting rid of these foundational texts that are the basis of Western civilization they are practicing their own form of racism. 

Just because the Humanities focuses so much on work done by so many now-dead white guys does not mean they are without value. The answer is to study the classics not necessarily as absolute truths, but to recognize their Eurocentrism while integrating other aspects of multiculturalism into the study of the world at large.

I’m not sure when students started running universities, but every once in a while administrators need to step up and say: “No, you can’t do that” or “You’re wrong” or, better yet: “Shut up and go away.”

And, if that bruises some tender little egos, so be it.

So while my granddaughter’s college fund grows, and before I make a decision about what she should do with it, I’ll keep watching to see if colleges and universities get out of the day care business and back to their proper role of providing a solid education for students.

Ron Martz is Marine Corps veteran (1965-68), journalist and former educator. He lives in Northeast Georgia. His commentaries appear monthly. Email him here.